In this two-part article in the series DANCE || CULTURE, Gwen sets out to discover more about Ballet, it’s history and its significance in Singapore. For the second and final instalment, Gwen chats with MR HAN KEE JUAN, Principal of Singapore Ballet Academy and former soloist at the Boston Ballet about his insights on the local classical scene. If you have yet to read the previous article, click here to find out more about the roots of Ballet!
Meeting Mr Han Kee Juan was nerve-wracking, to say the least. Having cultivated countless reputable American dancers in the ballet industry and numerous ballets under his belt, it was an honour to be able to interview such a man. But the fears were unjustified, as an image of an intimidating, stern teacher was nowhere to be found when Mr Han walked through the door.
Greeting me with a bright smile, Mr Han was quick-witted and refreshingly frank with his answer. “I am sorry, I have a meeting in an hour. Could this be quick?” Reassuring him that it would be, I launched into my questions.
Being away for 40 years, were there any significant changes seen?
“There was more passion then (40 years ago).” Acknowledging that the emphasis on academic achievement may have contributed to the dwindling passion now. He added, “We enjoyed the get-together, and although there is more dance out there now, I don’t think Singaporean audiences support it as much as it was then.”
What interested me the most was how he had mentioned that the shift in focus to academics has resulted in a loss of passion in classical dance. How are they related in any way? I couldn’t resist asking.
He started, “You see, I believe that you learn how to learn.” This was followed by a surprising declaration.
Mr Han, unlike many Singaporeans, does not believe in tuition classes.
Tuition has been a controversial topic in Singapore for many years. In a country where academic achievement is seen as a clear-cut pathway to succeed in life, many turned to tuition in order to attain the scores required.
Evidently, this has carried over into many dance schools in Singapore. Most students take up examinations under Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) and The Commonwealth Society of Teachers of Dancing (CSTD), students are given set routines to perform and graded according to it. But due to Singapore’s tradition of tuition, they are trained through ‘extra’ coaching classes before the exam itself and are often expected to achieve the highest grading.
It may have been effective for many Singaporean kids, but in Mr Han’s perspective, it may have detrimental effects.
“In the United States, there is no tuition, and I find that the kids there learn much faster and are more open to criticism. Because they know when they go to school, it’s their only time to learn. Singaporean kids learn a little slower, they are smart and well-behaved but they have this mentality, that if I don’t do so well in the classroom, I have tuition as a backup plan.”
Throwing out one instance, he mentioned how his older students are not always able to grasp what they have to learn in the classroom due to this mentality; they thought that they could revisit it again at a later time.
Recognising that the USA is two years behind Singapore in academics, he further established his stand: “Who started Google, who did Facebook? Microsoft? I don’t think just because you are good at school and you get high scores because of tuition, you can think outside of the box.”
Take competitions for example. There has been a surge in classical dance competitions for younger dancers in recent years, but to Mr Han, if you go there to win (much like setting your sights only on the A), you’ve lost. “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose because dance is very contextual. Everyone is going to see it differently. Every competition is different. It is important for the kids to understand what the competition means, they need to understand why they didn’t win, if they didn’t get into finals, look at what they learn. There is no guarantee in life.”
His advice to these competing dancers? “‘输不起不要参加’ (translating to “if you can’t lose, don’t join”). What you get out of the training is the most important thing. Everyone has different situations. Don’t compare, enjoy the journey and the lessons.”
He lamented: “I don’t think that this is ingrained in the student anymore. It’s more of how many A’s you get and how you get it. But life isn’t like that. There is no tuition in life.”
But does that mean that education is not important?
“Of course not,” Mr Han spoke, looking shocked. “If the school work begins to be neglected, they are not allowed to come to class. I had a student who was once preparing for a competition, and her parents requested to cut back classes for PSLE. I said sure, PSLE needs to come first.” His stand? “As much as you love to dance, anything could happen. You can be the most talented dancer, but you hurt yourself and it could be the end. That is why education must always be a priority.”
Other than critical thinking, Mr Han strives to teach respect in his class: “There are four respects.
The first is self-respect because you have to respect yourself well enough to know that next day when you come back to the class, you learn. And it’s up to your own self-respect to do homework and all that.
Second respect is to respect your friends, Why? Because if you don’t do your homework your teacher has to reteach everything again, and you are wasting your friends’ time.
Third respect is to respect the teacher. You have to come back and say, I appreciate what you gave me, this is what I am giving back to you as a student with all the corrections.
The fourth respect is to respect the art form. Fourth one is to respect the art form. You are not here to learn how to exercise, you are learning classical ballet. If you hear me say that and you think it sounds old school , then unfortunately, I am right.”
Cracking a smile, he said: “ In fact, some of the best dancers that are trained are also among some of the smartest students academically.” Further explaining his point, he mentioned: “Through juggling training and school, they learn how to focus, they learn how to manage their time.”
Certainly, it has been written widely that dancers cultivate great life skills that would benefit them greatly in their careers and school due to the high discipline and perseverance required of them in dance training.
Mr Han offered a helpful example here: “They have much homework too in the US for the younger professional dancers. But they learn. I have parents that say ‘Mr Han, he/she was doing homework all the way up to 1 o’clock in the morning’. My reply? Those are good life lessons. Because if they do go to university, it is going to be a breeze.”
On Dance Careers
“So about male dancers….” As I began my question, a laugh ensued from Mr Han. “The male is often seen as a provider, I think it’s a cultural thing. They are supposed to get jobs.” Indeed, there has been a retaining stigma in Singapore for many years. ‘Ballet is for girls, Soccer is for boys’ is one of many regular gender-specific refrains still heard in our society today.
Aside from being highly gender-specific, ballet was also often seen as a pastime instead of a career. At my sentiment, Mr Han shakes his head: “Many people think you can’t make a living out of dance. But I will assure you, you can. Look at all the artists and directors. For example, my student, David Hallberg, one of the best in the world. He can command anywhere from $5000 to $10000 (USD) per performance. It depends on how good you are at your craft and what company you are in.”
He went on: “In fact, I was in a dance company and making a living and my mother asked, when are you going to stop this and go back to school?”
Starting from a young age of 10, Mr Han came from a poor family that struggled to pay for his classes. Eventually Florrie Sinclair, a well-established teacher then, saw his potential and gave him a scholarship, and he never looked back. Relishing in the escape that classical dance provided him, it was not till he was 16 that he began considering dance as a serious career.
So is it possible for Singaporeans to go professional? “Yes, but only overseas.” Stating that Singapore does not have the infrastructure to provide for professional training, Mr Han gave an example: “I spent 6 hours talking to parents from different grades and talk to them about what I am trying to do here. Many parents tell me ‘My child wants to become a professional dancer, so do you think you are able to help?’ Well, I will put the question back to them. When I train professional students in the USA, they come 6 days a week, and they come at least 4 hours a day. That is about 24 hours, and that is not a lot. many schools go about 30 hours. Are you willing to do at least 24 hours? They understand what I am trying to get at.”
But what about School Of The Arts (SOTA)? SOTA does teach dance as a specialisation, so does LaSalle College of The Arts (LaSalle) and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA). Apparently, it isn’t enough.
In countries such as Russia and France with established dance schools, professional training starts at the age of 10, but for LaSalle and NAFA, training only begins after graduating from Secondary school. Although SOTA cultivates dancers from the age of 13, the dancers do not get enough training hours as compared to a professional dance school.
But is it possible for Singapore to reach the standards of these countries? “I don’t see why not.” He shrugged. To him, the economy goes hand in hand with the arts, and it is a reflection of a strong economy if there was a well-enough investment in the latter.
On Local Audiences and Media
Indeed, in comparison to 40 years back, there has been a substantial increase in classical dance studios around the island. The number of competitions and performances has increased exponentially too, but it wasn’t enough to attract the Singaporean masses.
The draw of street dance such as Hip Hop and KPOP in recent years provided much competition for a 500-year-old art form but to the Mr Han, ballet will definitely endure. “Ballet has survived so long. Even in my time, people still say it is going to be dead. But they still do Giselle, Swan Lake. They want to see the beauty; this is why they are still existent. It is more beautiful to see in real life.”
But even if there had been more local performances in recent years, many will still admit the biggest draw is for international companies. Bolshoi, Paris Opera… Boston, these are the few of the big names in the ballet industry that comes to our shores once every few years. Their tickets are often snapped up quickly, and promotions around the island are futile – tickets are always sold out. Local productions are often less quickly snapped up unless you are the part of the dance community.
Acknowledging that Singaporeans should show more support for the local talent, Mr Han smiled: “Bring it back to television. When you do competitions, it is within the dance community, but television is mass media. People will see it. They could bring back the cultural programmes, or even local ballet productions, even other types of dance. Even if they wouldn’t become dancers, it is important to have supporters.” In the past, there were frequent cultural programmes shown on the now-defunct Arts Central. Admittedly, I was drawn to ballet as a young child, entranced by the beauty shown on-screen.
But despite efforts to bring it back to the mass media, the world is shifting towards online platforms. What about the increase in online ballet tutorials? Pitching this question to him, Mr Han was deep in thought as he mused: “It is not like gym work. Ballet is not something that you can just do. You have to know how to feel your muscle. It’s not like you can teach gym exercise on YouTube. It is good if you know what you are doing – I do borrow some stuff from YouTube to teach in class – but being a novice? The physical class is still necessary.” He chuckled: “it is not tuition you can learn off the internet.”
So after a spectacular 40 years of being a dance educator in the USA, I could not resist asking him why he returned to Singapore. He smiled gently: “I returned to be with family. I’ve been alone for so long with dance being my life and partner, so this return is to relax a little and my chance to give back to dance education in Singapore.”
Despite his claim of “relaxation”, almost an hour had elapsed since the start of our interview, and Mr Han was going to be late for his meeting. After a brief chat with the staff, he was gone as swift as the wind. Relaxation indeed.